Are you inclined toward paranoia? Does the dark side attract you? If so, here’s a friendly suggestion: Launch your own small business—and, better yet, make it retail.
Why? Because the environment for locally owned enterprise borders these days on the nightmarish, with bogeymen at every turn. Margins are shrinking, the Great Recession’s clouds are everywhere—and then there are the big-box stores.
Ah yes: the big-box stores. Wherever you go, there they are—the Staples, Sam’s Clubs, and Lowe’s of the world, littering the landscape like oversize droppings from the Planet of the Terminators. If the view from progressive quarters is to believed, these national retailers are The Enemy, come to obliterate locally owned businesses and supplant local culture with a cheap homogenized knock-off of everything that’s real.
By all appearances, they’re doing a good job of it, too. Just check out the parking lot at a Home Depot or Best Buy, then visit our sleepy Main Streets—that’ll tell you pretty much everything you need to know. And wait, there’s worse! According to Frank Cohen, owner of Sun Wallpaper and Paint, an entire generation has come to view the national companies as their only real brick-and-mortar shopping option. “The rewards of shopping locally are lost on under-35-year-olds,” he says. “They only know the big chain stores.”
Is everything lost, then? Will the big-box Terminators terminate small business as we know it? Are we doomed to a future of heartless retail uniformity?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. There is a future for small business. For proof, we need look no further than the Hudson Valley, where more than a few locally-owned enterprises are holding their own (or better) against the big-box stores.
Let’s start with Sun Wallpaper and Paint, with stores in Poughkeepsie, Fishkill, and Beacon. The business, which has been in operation for about a century, was purchased in 1950 by the parents of Frank Cohen, the current owner, who joined the business after graduating from college in 1978. Under Cohen’s leadership, the company has thrived and is currently, he reports, “healthy and well capitalized.”
The big-box stores pose a stiff challenge to Sun Wallpaper. “Their marketing budgets are much bigger than ours, and they have this magical way of making you feel they’re giving you a discount, even though 80 to 90 percent of their products have standard pricing,” Cohen says. “They’re open evenings, and now that there are lots of two-income families, that’s when many people do their shopping. We can’t afford to keep those hours.”
Cohen’s response? “Sell what they don’t have and do what they don’t do. We offer specialized paint products that the big-box stores don’t carry such as Fine Paints of Europe and Farrow & Ball. We’ve also become ultra service oriented. We have designers on staff who go into customers’ homes and help them evolve their visions. You don’t see the national stores doing that.” He sums up the company’s evolution: “We’ve become a well-disguised commercial and industrial paint store with a high-end design department, selling some of the finest products in the world.”
Paul Solis-Cohen, owner of Catskill Art & Office Supply, sings from the same hymnal as Frank Cohen. Solis-Cohen founded Catskill Art 30 years ago in Woodstock. Since then, it has expanded to three locations, with branches in Poughkeepsie and Kingston.
For Solis-Cohen, the recession is his biggest obstacle. “If not for that, we’d be doing great,” he says. But the big-box stores pose a challenge too. On the art supply side of his business, he faces competition from Michael’s, and Staples and the Office Depot are looming presences on the office supplies side. Like his peer at Sun Wallpaper, Solis-Cohen’s strategic focus has been on differentiation, with special emphasis on customer service. “We have a graphic designer on staff. If you want banner ads or a restaurant menu, we’ll design them for you. We’ve also got an award-winning picture-framing department. Our customers really appreciate our knowledgeable personnel. We are a relationship-based business with strong roots in the community. That makes a huge difference.”
Meanwhile, the folks at Nekos-Dedricks Pharmacy in Uptown Kingston are bracing for a new threat: a CVS will soon open less than a quarter-mile away. It’ll be the third drug store within a short walk of Nekos-Dedricks: a Walgreen’s and a Hannaford pharmacy already take up space at the nearby mall.
These are neither the best nor worst of times for Nekos-Dedricks, which has been in Uptown Kingston since 1952. Margins for prescriptions, which were never large, are now razor-thin. The result: Volume is booming but profits are flat.